John Dudley looks back over his 55 years in Puppetry

John Dudley Backstage - The Tempest 1964
John Dudley backstage - "The Tempest" - Stratford 1964

Metropole, Glasgow Playbill
First Variety Engagement
Metropole, Glasgow 1959

"Would you like to see a Puppy Show?"  At least that's what I thought my Mother said, one Summer afternoon in 1938.  I was duly taken to a garden meeting of the local Women's Institute where a lady by the name of Nancy Henry was giving a lecture on glove puppets with a demonstration from a table theatre.  Part of the way through, she said "It's very easy, that little boy over there could do it."  A puppet was placed on my small hand and I was shown how to make him bow, wave, etc.

I was not only entranced, but hooked for life.

After that initiation, I went home and got my teddy bears and sat beneath the kitchen table pretending they were puppets that I held above my head.  My Mother thought it was a passing phase, but eventually succumbed after a few months and made me my first puppets from two of Nancy Henry's kits.

At Christmas 1942, I did my first public show, for which I received half a guinea!  Riches Untold!

After that, I found myself doing shows for other parties and each time receiving a fee.  I was then nine years of age.  In April 1943, I joined the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild as a Junior Member.

Table-top Theatre
Table-top Theatre in the style used
by Puppeteer, Nancy Henry
At school, we formed a Puppet Hobby Group in 1947 and I was all for wanting a glove show, but we had a visit from the Hogarth Puppets with their brilliant show and I was converted to marionettes.

When I left school in 1949, because I had taken part in many amateur dramatic performances and had written and produced my first pantomime at the age of fourteen, I wanted to be an actor and go to RADA.  My Father, however, put his foot down and said I was to train for a proper job and I chose the Hotel business because it has an affinity with Show Business.

During my three year training at Westminster Tech, I still carried on with the puppets - Punch & Judy having been added and also magic.  Needless to say, I was also in plays galore and revues, plus another panto.

Bishops Stortford College Marionette Club
Bishops Stortford College
Marionette Club


National Service beckoned and I became commissioned in the Catering Branch of the RAF, which took me all over the world.  Punch & Judy went with me and one of my fondest memories is playing to a mixed audience of English, Arab and Indian Children at Steamer Point in Aden.  There was no language barrier.

I was demobbed in May 1959, having spent nearly seven years in the RAF including a spell as Head of Broadcasting in Aden.  By this time I had decided that I was not going to wake up one morning in later years wishing I had gone on the stage professionally.  I had become a member of the Magic Circle and had an act known as Komedy with Kandles.  An amateur puppeteer had a show known as The Bernardoli Marionettes and was selling up.  I bought them out and put together a speciality spot for Variety.

Palace, Newcastle Playbill
Palace, Newcastle 1959

My first professional Variety date was at the Metropole Theatre Glasgow in May 1959 with Albert Whelan topping the bill.  I was closing the first half with the marionettes, plus the magic spot earlier in the same half.

I then went on to join the Norman Evans Show in Over the Garden Wall and countless other Variety Bills with my proscenium fit-up.  I believe that although other Puppet Companies were also touring in Variety, they were using an open-stage and that I was the last to actually have the older style show.

The last time it appeared, was at the Savoy Theatre, Clacton in September 1960.  Due to the rapid closure of Variety Theatres at the time, I could get a telegram on a Thursday informing me that next week's theatre was closing on the current Saturday.  As I had an Assistant to pay regardless, I decided to take stock and re-vamp the whole show.

It so happened in 1959, that I was booked for two weeks at Cheltenham by a man called Bruno Tublin.  I'd never met him but found on arrival in Cheltenham that I was billed as "Telepuppets London."  A few years later, when I reverted to a glove show, having been involved in children's television, I was to recall the name and become "The Dudley Telepuppets."

Savoy Playbill
Savoy, Clacton 1960

1960 became the year that I established my Caravan Theatre for Summer Seasons and Galas.  I contacted Jan Bussell and asked if he had any objections to my copying his idea.  He wished me well and I accepted a six week season in Swansea playing to over 30,000 people in that period - and it never rained!  Ray Smith, who came from Perth, was my regular Assistant with the Caravan Show.  He now lives in Canada.

In 1962, I had built a new larger marionette theatre, when I received a phone call from the Commercial Manager for the South of Scotland Electricity Board.  I was asked to present an advertising show for Unit Plan Central Heating, which was making its debut at the Scottish Ideal Home Exhibition in Kelvin Hall.

After the Exhibition, it was straight back home to rehearse for the Summer Season at Heysham Head, Morecambe, taking over from Wolohans Marionettes.

In 1963, the Telegoons TV series for Grosvenor Films came out of the blue and along with Violet Philpott and Ann Field, we started making 26 instalments with figures that were like ventriloquists dummies without legs on a 3 wheeled stand, below which, we crouched manipulating the arms on twisted bits of wire.  Additionally, we held a control for the mouth movements and eyes.  From episode 14, the lip movement was automatic with play back.  It was also the subject of a court case, but that's another story.

The Telegoons
The Telegoons

For long shots, the most unbalanced puppets with legs had to be manipulated with the weirdest of controls that took a bit of getting used to.  Walking them, was an acquired skill in itself and a question of mind over matter.

I had an offer to play Blackpool Tower the following year for a long Season, but I wanted to perform with the new theatre in a major resort.  I was offered Eastbourne.

During that 1963 Season, Muriel and Plug Shutt joined me to present my show "Stars on Strings" at the Winter Gardens, Eastbourne with two different 30-minute programmes, playing seven shows a day, seven days a week.  We worked on a rota to provide for days off, but I was also presenting another show at the Redoubt Music Gardens in the mornings.

Cabaret Marionette
Cabaret Marionette

Variety Proscenium
Proscenium Theatre used in Variety

It was during the season at Eastbourne that I was approached by an impresario to enquire whether I could present a Shakespearian play at Stratford Upon Avon the following year for a two-week run in celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Bard.

As I had experienced some criticism that my show was not artistic and that I only presented 'Commercial Circus, Underwater Ballet, Ghouls and Ghosties, etc', I decided to accept.  I commissioned an authority on Shakespeare's work to reduce "The Tempest" to a playing time of 45 minutes, reducing the characters to ten and keeping in every major speech.

Muriel Shutt made Caliban and Aerial and designed the costumes which were made by my Mother.  I made the other figures with some heads I had previously purchased from Harold Aidalberry.  A recording was made professionally at the Central School of Dramatic Art with Joyce Wren playing Miranda and Aerial.  I did the narration to the music of Tchaikovsky.

However, a television report at the time (1964), described Stratford as being "the centre of the Universe for all lovers of Shakespeare" and that "accommodation would be hard to get."  In consequence, people stayed away in their droves and the town was empty.  Apart from critical acclaim and a few school parties, I was losing money hand over fist and changed all the bills at the end of the first week to Circus etc and started to recoup my losses in the second week until I broke even.  So much for Art!

At the end of the year, I met Cynthia and within six weeks, we were engaged.  We got married in October 1965.

The Caravan Marionette Theatre
The Caravan Marionette Theatre

Inside the Caravan Theatre
Inside the Caravan Theatre
Stage folded up on Left

On Stage - The Caravan Theatre
On Stage - Caravan Theatre

Following an appearance at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge with our two-hour show, including "The Tempest" my van was stolen with the theatre inside, but fortunately not the puppets.  It was found burned out in Hadley Woods, near London, having been used for a robbery with false number plates.

The theatre was virtually unharmed, but I decided to call it a day with marionettes, due to the costs of touring at this time with no grants or subsidy of any kind.

It was at this point in time that I reverted to the glove puppet show and became "The Dudley Telepuppets."

In October 1966, I met my old Head of Department from Westminster Tech, who asked if I had any free time between then and Christmas, as they needed some lecturing cover.

I agreed, only if I could go on working every available moment in the theatre.  I carried on lecturing for the next 23 years at Westminster, Middlesex Polytechnic and later at North Devon College as Principal Lecturer.

During this time with plays written by Cynthia, I became so much in demand that I played the Caravan Club National Rallies with a new Glove Puppet Caravan Theatre for the next ten years.

A highlight in this period, was an invitation to entertain the New Year Royal Children's Party for King Hussain at the Royal Palace in Amman.  An experience never to be forgotten.

Once again in Devon, I was booked every Summer Season in the local Holiday Parks with the show and to such an extent that I took early retirement from lecturing in 1988.  In December 1997, I decided to retire from puppetry, having given 434 performances in my final year!

Puppets have served me well and little did I know what the outcome would be when I went to that 'Puppy' show in 1938.

On the Bridge - Caravan Theatre
Caravan Theatre - On the Bridge
Heysham Head Season
Heysham Head Season
Backstage - Eastbourne
Backstage - Eastbourne
Alfred, Warder of the Tower
Alfred, Warder of the Tower
Winter Gardens, Eastbourne
Winter Gardens, Eastbourne
"Neptune's Realm" - Eastbourne Season
"Neptune's Realm" - Eastbourne Season
Show for South Scotland Electricity Board, Kelvin Hall
Modern Homes Exhibition - Glasgow
Caravan & Awning Theatre for Glove Puppets
The Glove Puppet Caravan Theatre
Final Performance, North Devon Hospital Children's Ward 1997
Final Performance - North Devon Hospital
Taken from an article written by John Dudley for 'The Puppet Master' Magazine 1998
Photographs courtesy of John Dudley